I’m not big on hyperbole, but every once in a while a movie comes along that deserves it. Gravity is one of those movies. This is the type of film that pull quote buzzwords like “groundbreaking,” “masterpiece,” or “game-changer” were created for. There’s simply never been a cinematic experience quite like Gravity before and its beauty, spectacle, and sheer visceral force will be mimicked, referenced, and built upon for years to come. It’s the type of invigorating cinematic experience that can even make a cynical, salty-dog film lover like myself stop thinking or analyzing to simply get lost in gob smacked “oohs” and “aahs.” The film is a remarkable piece of work that demands to be seen on the biggest of screens (yes, even in 3D) because the experience of watching it for the first time feels somewhere between a movie and a ride. People will be pointing to Alfonso Cuaron’s latest feature as a milestone for years, so it’s probably best to get in on the ground floor appreciation now. It’ll be a while before you see something this stunningly fresh again.
The plot could not be simpler. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play a pair of astronauts floating around their ship while working on a routine science expedition. Bullock is a bit nervous about the whole thing; Clooney is a cocky veteran who seems unshakable. Then an unexpected message from NASA comes through claiming that a nearby satellite has exploded, sending debris hurtling through space towards them. The duo struggle to finish up their tasks and return to their ship. Then the debris arrives ahead of schedule, demolishing their ship and sending Bullock hurtling ass-backwards into the empty void. She spins alone and without human contact for a few terrifying moments before Clooney finally comes through on her intercom. She finds a way to signal him and he finally floats towards her, tethers the two of them together, and begins madly trying to figure out what to do next. What I just described is the first 13-minutes of the movie. It’s executed in what appears to be a single floating camera shot involving some of the most stunningly photo-real CGI ever created as well as a seamless mixture of actors and a digital environment. From there, the movie follows the two astronauts’ struggle to return to earth over the next 70 minutes in real time. Somehow, the most impressive imagery and gut-wrenching set pieces are still to come.
Director Alfonso Cuaron spent years struggling to bring this movie to the screen. Beyond the fact that new technology had to be developed simply to pull off what he had in mind, the way the film was to be produced would cost $100 million, but the studio wouldn’t get to see a frame of what it would actually look like until months and months into production. Cuaron did have the commercial clout of Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (aka the best one) and the Oscar-nominated prestige of Children Of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien under his belt, but that still wasn’t quite enough to get a greenlight for such an ambitious project. Thankfully, it eventually happened once two of the biggest stars on the planet signed on for the only onscreen roles. It feels in many ways like a culmination of the work Cuaron has done to date. The long-take style as well as his desire to mix populist genres with art house techniques and themes are pushed to the limit here. Visually, there’s simply no benchmark to point to that accurately describes the experience (well, maybe 2001: A Space Odyssey). The CGI is astounding, but the way Cuaron uses his weightless, hovering camera is the real draw. The camera flies across the planet and into characters visors, yet never just for the show off sake of it. Cuaron’s camera is always perfectly positioned to express Bullock’s emotional state and the audience takes that ride with her to the end. For the most part, the effect is intensely sensory and visceral, plunging audiences into the woozy weightlessness, deafening silence, and horrifying vastness of dead cold space. It’s likely many audiences will feel ill from the experience. The good news is, that’ll be a sign of success. You should feel ill. This ride is sickeningly intense.
For the most part, Gravity is a film all about the experience, kind of like the ultimate space simulator with a story or an IMAX space documentary gone wrong. However, Cuaron and his actors do take the time to lay out some universal themes and emotions that only heighten the impact of the spectacle. The film is ultimately about overcoming adversity and tragedy through growth and rebirth. That’s about as simple and elemental a theme as exists in drama. Some sniffy overly intellectual folks might consider it hackneyed, but there’s something admirable about the directness and simplicity of the entire project. If you’re going to provide an audience with a visual and technical experience unlike anything they’ve ever experienced, you don’t need much complexity elsewhere. The themes Cuaron explores are universal and he elegantly incorporates them into the film in a way that only heightens the audience investment in the material. Let’s face it, blockbusters are simplistic as a genre. But rarely are they poetically simplistic.
At the center of it all, Sandra Bullock expresses the loss, tragedy, and sheer terror of her character exquisitely. The film must have been a nightmare to make and yet, you’d never know it. She lives and breathes her character with such intensity and emotion that you’ll never once picture her dangling from wires against a green screen struggling to play pretend. The same goes for George Clooney, whose natural charm and charisma essentially are his performance, yet he provides an easy entry point to guide viewers into the movie. At first it was a bit worrying to see such marquee names on a poster for a movie that didn’t need them, but given how stripped down the script is and how focused the film is on creating a heightened experience for the audience, having two actors who instantly feel known and relatable to the audience helps get the ride up and running instantly with no screen time wasted setting things up.
You’ll be hearing a lot of Gravity this year. The film was a $100 million experiment that worked and is sure to leave audiences drooling in delight. The hype machine on this one is already up and running and it’s sure to only get more intense was audiences are allowed in on the fun. For once, it’s safe to believe the hype. What Alfonso Cuaron has created is remarkable. Miraculous, even. It’s hard to even describe why, and truly needs to be seen and experienced to be believed. So do that. Pick the biggest screen you can, sit as close to the center of the theater as possible, butter up your popcorn, and prepare to be wowed. Movies like this come along once in a decade if we’re lucky. Savour it.